My cohort in the Miami MFA was a bit older and more diverse than others. We had among us a Barbadian schoolteacher, a South African whose ancestor was head of the Voortrekkers and was killed by Zulus, two women from local Cuban families, and a California poet who rode his K-Mart bicycle in heavy Miami traffic—knees up around his ears, ponytail streaming in the wind—and stopped to nibble hallucinogenic flowers from people’s shrubs.
One couple rented a funky cabin out in Homestead on a scrubby lot that sprouted mangoes, palms, and avocados. They hosted the sort of bonfire parties where somebody got burned in effigy while drunks hacked the tops off coconuts with machetes. We felt lucky to be together. The cohort before us had splintered; the one after us was younger and wrote about she-bitch monsters with 14 breasts, and Disneyed African tribes.
John Balaban was director of the program and taught both an undergraduate fiction-writing class and a graduate seminar on the forms of poetry. Watching him in the classroom for the first time was like being surprised at a live concert by the virtuosity of some musician you knew well from albums. We were aware, as he talked about Confessional poetry or postmodern novels, that we were one degree of separation from Robert Lowell and John Barth, his teachers. But he went on sabbatical after our first year.
There was a going-away party—also I think to celebrate his second National Book Award nomination—at an Italian restaurant in Coral Gables. All of us went, but I felt like I’d missed an opportunity. It was a bad time for me anyway, and I ate something heavily alfredoed, drank a glass of wine I couldn’t afford, and started smoking again. We were all getting up to leave, when Balaban came over and said he needed some help in his yard. Given that my army service included two years as a combat engineer, he wondered if I knew how to run a chainsaw. I said I was the guy, and he said I thought you might be.
We ended up working side-by-side in his garden for the next two years. He could have found someone cheaper, or paid me less, but I think he asked me only to help us out financially. Miss Wallace and I lived two blocks away, in a rented condo, and it was easy for me to throw on diving shorts, jungle boots with socks rolled down over the tops, a Mickey Mouse t-shirt with the arms ripped off, and a bandanna, and walk or ride my mountain bike (South Miami elevation: 10 feet) down to the Balabans’. Dressed nostalgically in the outfit my detachment had worn in Panama, I fancied I looked a little piratical.
Moss grew on the roof of their low house under a spreading live oak, behind a screen of palmettos, bamboo, bougainvillea, hibiscus, and other plants I couldn’t identify. A circle driveway, so deep in pea gravel I couldn’t ride through it, came to the porch. Many times when I arrived, their daughter was practicing the piano. She had tamed a mutilated tomcat that always appeared in the undergrowth when I knocked, and his tail quivered as he squirted musk on the ferns in greeting. Inside, the house was open, with cool stone floors and oriental rugs. There were orchids in pots, small objects from their travels on tables and bookshelves, and spider plants hanging in the solarium. One of their dogs was a manic little sausage that looked like it had escaped from an Eastern European circus, and he always used my entry as a chance to escape out the front door and run off down the street, barking. John cussed and went after him calling, “Bobo! Bobo!” and the cages of cockatoo, finches, and budgies shouted and peeped.
South Miami had been devastated by Hurricane Andrew a few weeks after the Balabans arrived. John wrote:
For days, Army cranes clanked by our houses
in sickening August heat as bulldozers
scraped the rotting tonnage from the streets.
Now their property was so dense and lush again that I had to walk in and under and through gardenia, guanabana, strangler vines, more bamboo, and sea grapes to discover the fence along its boundaries. There was a crescent of tough grass, but the yard was mostly a subtropical garden that demanded constant, backbreaking care.
We joked and talked as we worked. It was instructive to see how a real writer lived, which may be what most MFA students hope to learn and is the one thing that most programs can’t offer. I was too far behind John’s understanding of Vietnam to discuss it intelligently, but that rarely stopped me. He asked questions about deep-sea diving and other things I did know, and we talked about books, writers, and the poetical life. (I said I liked the idea of Peter Matthiessen. He scratched the back of his head and looked off sideways, as he did in class lectures, saying, “I like Peter Matthiessen.”)
He held banana palms out of the electrical wires while I sawed through their trunks in five or six wet strokes with a brush saw. They came down like celery stalks, so it was a surprise to learn that other palms’ leaves become spiny, rock-hard husks when they died; I pole-sawed futilely while John swiped at them with a rake. We cast chemical fertilizers, cleaned algae from the koi pond and filters, and made runs to the nursery. Once, a truck dumped more pea gravel for the driveway, and we spread it with rakes and shovels to try and smother the tropical crabgrass that shot rhizomes in every direction.
I tried to carry as much of the heavy stuff as possible—tons of vegetable waste to the street for pickup, dozens of bags of mulch—because I worried a little about his health. I’d seen contraptions in the house—an over-breather for sleep apnea; the traction device he’d built to stretch his back: a gallon water jug hanging from a pulley screwed into the ceiling over a wing chair, with a noose for his neck.
I knew from John’s writing and then from his gardening that he had a temper. I didn’t want any heart attacks or injuries, mine included. One morning he’d been trying to translate medieval Vietnamese poems but was interrupted by phone calls and then by our appointed time for yard work. It was as hot as it gets in South Florida in the summer and humid enough for prickly heat to develop under your wet shirt. John got trapped in a patch of bamboo he was trying to remove, which was all wrapped in kudzu. In his rage he blindly waved a little chainsaw, like a smoky light saber, over and around his head, bringing stalks and vines crashing down on himself. (I flatter myself to think that if I’d been there to help remove the massive steel hurricane shutters I’d helped him install, his finger wouldn’t have been broken when the stripped bolt refused to come out. “A boxer’s break,” his doctor told him, so I can imagine what happened.)
We took breaks for iced tea or water under the banyan tree out back. I had questions I wanted to ask John. He’d written that many of his colleagues at another university had thought he should get off the “Vietnam stuff.” I’d been around our English department long enough to figure that most there would think similarly. He wrote in his memoir that, after Vietnam, those friends now gone “became more real and dear to me than anyone I could meet as I now re-endeavored as an academic.” There was something in the best literature that was also like loneliness, and I didn’t ask. One doesn’t question former teachers too closely, for what final lesson might be taught.
I’d been working for him a year before he raised himself off his lawn chair, looked me in the eyes, and farted loudly. I knew then everything would work out. Often he read stories I’d written and encouraged me by saying that all I needed to finish them were endings. He or Lonnie, his wife, always made us lunch, sushi or sandwiches, with cold beer. John had to find a beach towel to protect the dining chair from my sweat; now that I was back in shape, it poured out so copiously that it was still just water and had no smell. As I left each afternoon, John often gave me more money than we’d agreed on, or insisted I take a large bill because it was all he had. When I tried to give him change the next time, he denied he’d overpaid.
Later he said he hated caring for that garden but that it was good we did all that work, because it brought a better price for the house. I didn’t hate it. (Okay, I hated pulling spider grass from the driveway, since I could never get all the roots, and it grew back immediately.) I looked forward to the labor and direct contact with nature. Both took my mind off my problems, and I left happily sunburned and abraded, with blisters, grass cuts, irritated skin, thorns embedded in my fingers, sore muscles, and an aching back. I thought, as I showered and put on dry clothes, that William Carlos Williams’s “no ideas but in things” could be extended to mean, “No sanity but in the physical world.”